Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Images of deviance and control on campus

Caitlin Evans

University of Venda

[email protected]

This paper is based on an analysis of a sample of recent news articles, which appeared in local newspapers, viz. the Mirror, the Citizen, the Mail & Guardian, the City Press, the Sowetan and the Star, since the beginning of 1997. The articles are analysed within a discourse analytic framework. Articles reporting on campus crises at the two universities in the Northern Province, namely University of Venda and University of the North are studied. The paper focuses on the representation of students in these crises - as well as the ideological function which this may serve - in the different newspapers surveyed. The research is placed within the context of current dialogue around tertiary education in South Africa.

The purpose of this research is to investigate images of students in the crises at the two universities in the Northern Province over the past six months. As 'historically disadvantaged universities, both these universities, University of Venda, and University of the North, still show consequences of apartheid political ideology. Current news articles implicitly perpetuate some of the images which these universities, and their students, have inherited. The intention of this article is to, within a discourse analytical framework, make these images explicit, to allow alternative ways of construing crises situations at these universities.


It is precisely when people consider themselves free agents, motivated by obvious 'common sense', that they actually are motivated by a powerfully internalised ideology (Tomaselli, Tomaselli, & Muller, 1987). However, ideology should not be considered as a 'thing having content, but rather as describing relationships and effects in a particular place and historical period (Parker, 1990).

News events are made intelligible against a background of culturally shared knowledge, and journalists apply their social schemata strategically in the construction of news events. Although models journalists have about events are inherently biased in terms of underlying social representations, personal variations and deviation are not excluded (van Dijk, 1988,). These manifest in contradicting discourses which are important. When ideas of progressive change are built into the contemporary political discourse, these dynamics are reflected in our everyday language (Parker, 1987). For example, the relation between active and passive clauses, or the absence of the agent in clauses expresses ideological choices. Although a linguistic form has many possible meanings, when it appears in the context of a systematically selected range of forms, the meaning of each form becomes more or less specific. However, selection is often merely reproduction of what the speaker has already learned (Kress, 1985).

Kress (1985) refers to content-structure of texts as the way in which events are portrayed causally. Events appear in a transactive form (arising directly out of an agents action and with a direct effect on a goal) or in a nontransactive form (arising as self-caused action or actionthat happens in an unspecified way). The mode chosen is related to the way in which the action is integrated into the speakers ideological system, and is related to a specific discourse.

The current state of tertiary education in South Africa has given rise to a crises discourse. The newspaper reports analysed are directly relating to (and nourishing) this 'education crises' discourse. However, crises should be understood as subjective evaluations of the significance of events rather than as real events. Newspaper reports are structured to be a surrogate reality (Bruck, 1992). By giving them attention and value, newspapers frequently facilitate the public construction of disruptive events as crises (Roth, 1992). The media sensationalises crises when they can be reported as profoundly disrupting 'normal' life and have an institutional (not only individual) context. Three sets of roles are characteristic of crisis reports. These are: perpetrators, objects/victims, and authorities (Bruck, 1992).

Newspaper sensationalisation of crises also involves a reporting technique, Bruck (1992) calls 'spectacularization'. A spectacle is a social relation among people mediated by images. Spectacularisation allows readers to participate vicariously in the reported crises, whilst being protected by the assurance of being a distanced observer. Aware that readers are vicariously involved in the crisis, reporters can subtly cast protagonists and antagonists. Stigmatisation (of antagonists) and labelling has been said to justify behaviour towards those labelled in a way which would otherwise be considered unacceptable. As Gerbner (1992, p. 97) says:

Stigma is a mark of disgrace which evokes disgraceful behaviour.... Classifying some people as criminals permits dealing with them in ways otherwise considered criminal.... Proclaiming them enemies makes it legitimate to attack and kill them.... Stigmatisation and demonization isolate their targets and set them up to be victimised.

In other words, language is used to constitute status and roles which justify claims to power, and to stigmatise opposition forces as 'deviant' assigning them to subservient roles (Fowler, 1985) . In press reports, certain groups are defined as 'illegal' to justify authorities in treating them as 'problems of justice' (van Dijk, 1987).

In a similar way, violence can be seen as a physical show of force which demonstrates who has power to impose what, on whom and the circumstances under which this imposition can take place. It functions to designate winners versus losers, and victimisers versus victims. Violence in stories symbolises threats to human integrity, and to the established order. Violent stories often demonstrate how in the process of restoring order, the threats are combated, and the (deviant) violators are victimised (Gerber, 1992).

This research focusses on the application of these strategies in news reporting on university crises, and the evolving discourse.


Discourse can be defined in various ways. A definition appropriate for the present research is that '[d]iscourse is a system of statements which constructs an object' (Foucault, in Parker, p.191).

Fluid movement between different stages (which should be a conceptual rather than a rigid temporal scheme) in the process is required for analysis of discourse. Initially, the researcher searches for patterns (of variability as well as of consistency) in the data. However, discourse analysis is basically concerned with function and consequence. In the second phase then, the researcher forms hypotheses regarding the functions and effects and searches for linguistic support (Potter and Wetherell, 1987). As Hartley, (1982, p.6) says, 'Discourses... are perhaps best understood as the different kinds of use to which language is put'.

Newspaper headlines are a significant genre of discourse in that they make the first and sometimes only impression on the news reading public. They sometimes seem deeply ambiguous - yet the surface differences can just be a mask for deeper correspondence. (Tomaselli, Tomaselli, & Muller, 1987). In expressing the top of the semantic macrostructure, headlines provide a subjective definition which programmes the interpretation process. Analysis of headlines allows a first qualitative step in which inferences can be drawn from topics expressed and their structural form or style (van Dijk, 1988). In indicating which information is most prominent, headlines have a special role in the 'relevance structure' of news (van Dijk, 1985).


Newspaper reports on student-related crises at the University of Venda and the University of the North from January until the end of July were acquired by means of a media search done by the 'Instituut vir Eietydse Geskiedenis at the Orange Free State University. Unfortunately, it seems that this search was not thorough - some articles were found which were undetected by the database search. These were included in the analysis. Only English South African newspapers available in the Northern Province were used (The Citizen, The Star, Sowetan, Mail & Guardian, Pretoria News, City Press). The headlines of each of the texts were analysed. The analysis was then synthesised into themes which consolidate images of students in the reports.

The Report

Causal implications

The transactive form is used in articles referring to University of Venda under three discernable circumstances, namely:

1. when a polarised deadlock between students and management is indicated (e.g., university denies bias; 'Azasco protest continues);

2. when management exerts control (opens or closes Azasco office or the university);

3. or when Azasco is portrayed as deviant.

Circumstances two and three also create the image of polarisation between management and students.

In ten of the sixteen headlines causality is transactively stated. This indicates that more than half the headlines do in fact assume a polarisation between management and students. It is in the context of this assumed polarisation that students are portrayed as deviant and management as in control.

In the other six headlines, the nontransactive form is used. No specific pattern is clear here, but situations referred to could signify resistance to management. Class attendance/ boycott; increase of fees; Azascos anger; the presence of the military or security on campus; Azasco students expulsion; and Azasco members disciplined are the topics which are headlined nontransactively.

Most (19 out of 26) texts referring to the University of the North are nontransactive. There is a strong tendency for those which are transactive to refer to legal justice in some way. This again suggests control of management, now with support beyond the limits of university authorities. Of the seven which are transactive, only two do not suggest legality, namely, overdue fees crippling university' and 'ANC seeks meeting with students on Turfloop crises'. These seem to link the crises to political and financial realms, suggesting the university is part of the larger social context of South Africa. No pattern has been identified among the University of the North nontransactive headlines.


The following themes have been identified from the way in which headlines portray students:

1. Students as destructive and a threat to social order

2. Students as objects

3. Students as disgraceful objects

Discussion of each of these themes follows.</